MGM // 2007 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // July 18th, 2011
"I said the Valium you gave to Simon wasn't actually Valium. It's an hallucinogenic concoction. You know, stuff like acid, mescaline, a little ketamine. "
And here it is, one of 2007's best comedies on Blu-ray
Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen, Pride and Prejudice) is just trying to make it through the day without a hitch. The funeral home has already brought the wrong corpse to the house and his older brother Robert (Rupert Graves, V for Vendetta) has just arrived and informed everybody that his first class ticket from New York was more important than helping Daniel pay for the funeral of their father. On top of that, Daniel's wife (Keeley Hawes, Tipping the Velvet) also keeps bugging him to put a down payment on a house before it's too late and people keep asking him why his famous author of a brother isn't going to be doing the eulogy. These things alone are enough to drive a man up the wall but there's still a gay, blackmailing dwarf and a naked relative hallucinating something fierce to contend with. Making it through the day without a hitch has now become an impossibility.
There are two types of people in the world: those who love British humor and those who are baffled by it. I'm not about to say if one group is better than the other, just that it takes a special kind of American -- with a dark and open sense of humor -- to latch onto a good chunk of British comedy. To tread lightly and not generalize too much, British humor is a scattershot method to madness where one throws out so many different tones, styles and attempts that it's impossible to not hit dead-on in some areas. It's a style of comedy that is both absurd and reserved; oftentimes at the same moment.
In Death at a Funeral, the humor is derived from outrageously macabre situations of folly and misunderstanding, be it the naked guy on drugs who's meeting his father-in-law for the first time, or the dwarf who wants to blow the lid on an affair he had with the guy in the coffin. It's certainly a comedy of errors but it's also got an assured subtlety to it. Unlike a large chunk of American comedy which is both situational and needs to knock its audience over the head in order to let them know when to laugh with nutshots or sound cues, here we have a strange novelty of underselling the situation and letting the audience find its way. Don't get me wrong, the film is madcap and vile in more than a few places. It must not be forgotten that there's a graphic scene where a man gets shit all over his hand and face, but its surprisingly not ratcheted up to the breaking point like we would expect in an American comedy, especially from someone like Adam Sandler (Just Go With It).
This is probably because Death at a Funeral is stock full of actors not mugging for the camera or trying to outdo one another, which has become a staple for these half-baked improvisational comedies that have dominated our screens ever since Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks) were introduced to us. For as many times as improv creates a wonderfully organic moment of comedy, there are countless other dead brained and stillborn scenes that get overplayed to the point of self-reflexivity. Here the actors follow an actual script and an actual tone consistently throughout the film and the whole affair is so much better for it. At the center of it all is Matthew MacFadyen as Daniel, the soft-spoken and newly anointed head of the family after the death of his father. It's a wonderfully neurotic performance on MacFadyen's part, as he knows how to play both self-assured and nervous at the same time. The core of the narrative relies on the character of Daniel as the lynchpin to the whole affair; the one character who brings everyone together and acts as a catalyst to both the ridiculous and the dramatic. And MacFadyen never falters.
Daniel is not as smart or as handsome as his older brother and he's not independent or swanky. He's not prideful but he also doesn't have much to be proud of, seeing as he's spent the last three years of his life trying to write a book to compete with his famous brother and yet he won't let anyone read it. But he's got a loving wife who deals with his insecurities and his innate Youngest Son issues. This film is Daniel's journey from a product of the inherent fallacy of the Postmodern Man to a confident and strong-willed husband, brother and head of the family. This is the heart of the film, comedy as catharsis. It also doesn't hurt that you have Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as a gay dwarf who has come to crash the wedding with revealing photos, or Alan Tudyk (Firefly) in a role that almost runs away with the entire film. It would be unwise for me to spoil such a pitch-perfect comedic character with an explanation, so for those who still haven't seen the movie, be prepared to fall in love with Tudyk.
But it doesn't end there because Death at a Funeral is a film stock full of character actors (my favorite kind of film), each and every role delightfully different. If you'll afford me a cheap simile; the film is like a wonderfully diverse potluck dinner where each actor has brought something unique and flavorful to the table. Combined you have a perfect comedy in every conceivable way.
Most importantly though is the fact that Death at a Funeral has a very strong heart to it. It's a screenplay that knows how to perfectly balance laughter with gravitas. The film can have you rolling on the floor laughing like a maniac one second and then sober you up when it reminds you that this is a story about death, grief and reconciliation. What springs to mind is an incredibly poignant speech from Daniel as he reaches his breaking point. "Life isn't simple, it's complicated. We're all just thrown in here together, in a world full of chaos and confusion, a world full of questions and no answers, death always lingering around the corner, and we do our best. We can only do our best, and my dad did his best."
Your run of the mill comedy does NOT carry that much of an emotional punch, and that is why Death at a Funeral was not only the best comedy of 2007 but also one of the best black comedies in an incredibly long time.
The Blu-ray itself is no amazing improvement but it does make the film look the best it ever has. Many scenes are soft if not downright out of focus, but on the whole the entire affair shows a decent level of detail and clarity. Rich greens and hues of red are amazingly reproduced for outside scenes. But most importantly, the core of the film rests firmly with the color black (seeing as this is a funeral after all) and this disc doesn't disappoint too much in that respect. Black levels are mostly consistent, with the fabric on the suits jumping out at first glance. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master track is about as good as you would want from a comedy. There's nothing at all in the film to truly blow you away in terms of sound design but the Blu-ray does an incredible job at balancing the dialogue and the soundtrack. Never do the actors' words get swallowed up by the soundscape. In terms of the extras you get a commentary track by director Frank Oz (yes, the guy who voiced Yoda). It's not a sublime audiotrack by any means but it's a welcome addition to hear Oz talk about his decisions with the film. There is however a second commentary track by the screenwriter Dean Craig and actors Alan Tudyk and Andy Nyman that showcases a great level of comedic candor. These three get together like peas in a pod. There's also a pretty tame gag reel to round out the special features.
I won't sit here and talk about the brain-dead decision by Hollywood to remake this film only three years after the original came out because everything that could be said about that -- and Hollywood's mentality in general -- has already been said. So let's just say that those looking for a highly entertaining and uproariously absurd comedy that also has a little smidge of emotional weight should give this film a look. It also helps to be a fan of British and black humor.
While the transfer on the Blu-ray may be a little too soft in too many spots to ever call this a resounding success, it's still the best that this great black comedy has ever looked.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Gag Reel